Listen To The Interview: Mike Marshall And Robert Hanna With Restore Hetch Hetchy

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Can the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park be restored to how it appeared before it was inundated with a reservoir to serve San Francisco's water needs? Looking Up Hetch Hetchy Valley from Surprise Point, 1908, photo by Isaiah West Taber via Sierra Club.

Kurt Repanshek's picture

Can you imagine another Yosemite Valley? Another granite-lined canyon graced by feathery waterfalls and split by a placid river running through its meadows and forests?

It exists, but since 1923 the wonders of the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park
have been under water, Tuolumne River water backed up by the O'Shaugnessy Dam and stored for the needs of San Francisco’s residents.

John Muir lobbied hard against the dam, calling the Hetch Hetchy Valley "one of nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples.” But not enough people listened to Muir; the dam was approved and the slender valley, more than eight miles long, was swallowed whole by 360,000 acre·feet of water.

But the folks at Restore Hetch Hetchy believe the valley can be drained, dried out, and brought back to life. They believe it can be revived and displayed as another incredible wonder of Yosemite National Park. And it can be done, they add, without depriving San Francisco of a drop of water.

So far unconvinced of that possibility is U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the senior senator from California who a few years back saw that federal funding for a study into draining the valley was removed from the Interior Department’s budget.

In July, in a move to showcase support and draw attention to the issue, Restore Hetch Hetchy officials are leading a number of hikes across Yosemite. The guided treks will traverse scenic areas, literally and figuratively following in John Muir’s footsteps.

Earlier this month Traveler Editor Kurt Repanshek discussed this issue with Mike Marshall, the executive director of Restore Hetch Hetchy, and Robert Hanna, a great-great-grandson of John Muir and a member of the organization’s board of directors. During that interview Mr. Marshall pointed out the growing interest in “Muir’s March,” as the hikes -- three seven-day backpacks, two four-day backpacks, and a day hike -- are called.

The hikes will take place in July.


Mike Marshall: “The fact that we’ve gone from 14 people last year to 57 people so far this year, reflects an amazing expansion of support for restoring Hetch Hetchy.”

NPT: "Now, the naysayers might say in a state as populous as California that 57 people really isn’t that big of a number."

Mike Marshall: "Well, understand that each group is limited to either 12 or 15 people, depending on the wilderness permit we have. We have two guides on each trip. The very nature of doing events that culminate in Yosemite like these do restricts the size of the number of participants."

NPT: "Ok. Now, I know you’ve got different hikes, a seven-day hike, a four-day hike, and a one-day hike, I believe."

Mike Marshall:
"Yes, that’s correct. Three seven day hikes, two four-day hikes, and then a one-day hike."

NPT: "And can you say which are getting more participation, or more people out there for a nice long week-long in the park?"

Mike Marshall: "We have 12, 13 people registered for the seven-day trips, so that’s terrific, and then I think we have 15 people so far for the two four-day trips, and then the one-day hike is originally planned on having 30 people, we have 29 signed up so far. So we’ll probably expand that to, potentially even double the size of it, because I would imagine people will be signing up for it until the very last day. So, the one-day hike has proved to be very, very popular.”

NPT: "What about park officials. Are they pro, con, indifferent?"

Mike Marshall: "I would say none of the above. I would say they are decidedly neutral. As any government agency should be in a hot potato political issue like this is. I think if you spoke with them privately, many of them are very, very supportive. The notion of having a public utility smack dab in one of America’s most beautiful national parks is aggravating to them, but on an organization level they have to remain neutral in the whole process."

NPT: "What about the politicians? Isn’t that one of the biggest stumbling blocks that you have to overcome? Isn’t Dianne Feinstein against draining the reservoir?"

Mike Marshall: "Well, Sen. Feinstein is indeed slightly misunderstanding the situation and has longstanding opposition to restoring the Hetch Hetchy. Thankfully she’s not the decision-maker. And that’s where I think a lot of people have been confused in the past. That only Congress could change the situation, and in fact our legal research has shown that the voters of San Francisco, the people of San Francisco, can vote to restore Hetch Hetchy Valley, and that’s an electorate in which Dianne Feinstein does not have a whole lot of sway, and it’s a decision-making process that is much more winnable for us.”

NPT: "Now, I seem to recall a few years ago under George W. Bush, didn’t the Interior Department budget contain funding to do a study into draining Hetch Hetchy?"

Mike Marshall:
"That’s correct, and Sen. Feinstein killed that in the budget."

NPT: " Ok, ok, that’s one thing I wasn’t quite clear on. And her biggest concern, isn’t it how would San Francisco get water and electricity?"

Mike Marshall: "She doesn’t understand where San Francisco gets its water. San Francisco’s water rights, and its source of water is the Tuolumne River, their water rights are tied to the Tuolumne River, which flows through the Hetch Hetchy Valley, and then on down into the San Joaquin River and then into the bay delta and the San Francisco Bay.

"So, that’s not going to change, nobody’s arguing San Francisco’s water rights. What’s going to change is where we store the water. And the confusion derives from the fact that even though San Francisco has nine reservoirs where it stores its water, one of them, its largest reservoir, is the Hetchy Hetchy Reservoir, and we have always called the system the Hetch Hetchy system.

"So, Sen. Feinstein and many San Franciscans mistakenly believe that Hetch Hetchy is the source of San Francisco’s water, when in fact the Tuolumne River is the source. And we’re not talking about taking a drop of water away from the city, we’re simply saying store it outside of the national park."

NPT: "Is there capacity in the downstream reservoirs to hold the water that’s in Hetch Hetchy?"

Mike Marshall: "There’s any number of opportunities that are here, but there would have to be modifications to the system, there’s no doubt. But the Don Pedro Reservoir downstream could potentially be slightly increased in size to certainly allow for San Francisco to store its water there.

"The Calaveras Reserovir is currently going under a seismic retrofit, and once that occurs it has upside potential far increased, much bigger than it currently is. And the other part of this is, San Francisco is a terrible manager of the water it has. A terrible manager.

"We’re green in many ways, but when it comes to water, we’re stuck in the 19th century because we’ve had access to Tuolumne River water for so long. We don’t recycle any water, we’ve abandoned all groundwater use, and so whatever solution San Francisco ultimately decides on to allow Hetch Hetchy to be restored has to include reforming San Francisco’s management and use of water.”

NPT: "Robert, I guess, this is kind of a softball question, but it’s a question I’m sure some folks out there would be wondering about, is why are you pushing for the dam’s removal? It’s been there since, what the late 20s, early 30s? It’s become part of the landscape."

Robert Hanna: “The story of Hetch Hetchy has obviously been tied to my family since the times where my great-great grandfather vigorously fought to protect it. I think that nowadays, I’m a new father, I have a three-week old daughter and I have a 19-month-old daughter, and I think you really capture the importance of doing whatever you can now to leave the world a better place for them, and there is no other opportunity in the world to give back another Yosemite Valley to the people.

“I think that’s really important to me. I was blessed enough to be raised in a family where the natural beauty in our national parks, in our state parks, it’s important to us. And I think that this is an opportunity that we have to change the world, and I think that our children, our grand children down the line will look back when this is finished and say thank god they acted.

"It’s a tremendous opportunity and I, our actions now are speaking to the future. And I think we owe it to them to do this."

NPT: "Mike, I guess I’m wondering then, in light of what you said about the water and not a drop would be denied San Francisco, what are the biggest impediments to removing the dam and restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley today?"

Mike Marshall: "I think the biggest impediment is the one that’s reflected in Sen. Feinstein’s opinions. It’s ignorance about San Francisco’s water system. I think our challenge is to get people to understand where their water comes from and how it’s managed, and once that’ occurs it’s a matter of political will.

"There are multiple studies -- the state of California, the Environmental Defense Fund, the federal government, the University of Wisconsin -- there are seven major studies, all have looked at varying degrees about whether Hetch Hetchy can be restored and whether it will impact San Francisco, and all have concluded the same thing, which is this can be done without adversely impacting San Francisco’s water supply.

“What’s lacking is the political will to do it, and that’s our challenge as an advocacy organization, is to build that political will and the best way to do that is to call the question.”

NPT: "There locally, or in Congress?"

Mike Marshall:
"Here locally in San Francisco. Our strategy is as long as Sen. Feinstein continues to remain uninformed about the system, we need to focus on the electorate of San Francisco, and that’s what we’re doing."

NPT: "And by educating the electorate, you would hope that they would lobby her to change her position on this?"

Mike Marshall: "No, by educating the electorate we’re then going to have a ballot initiative in San Francisco in November 2012, which calls for the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley, a reform of the water system, and the ultimate restoration of the valley. And we’re simply, we don’t need congressional action, San Francisco can decide on its own to abandon, sorry, to drain the reservoir and restore the valley."

NPT: "Oh, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that."

Mike Marshall: “That’s a key part of this conversation, so let me stress it. There are two decision-makers: either Congress can vote to force San Francisco to restore Hetch Hetchy, or San Francisco can vote to drain the reservoir and return the valley to the Park Service so that they can restore it, and that is our goal at this point, to not concern ourselves with Congress but instead to focus on the electorate of San Francisco, which will be a much more favorable environment for us."

NPT: "And what steps do you have to take to get the question on the ballot?"

Mike Marshall: "We have to gather 47,000 signatures by, I believe, June of next year in order to be on the November 2012 ballot."

NPT: "And I imagine they have to be San Francisco residents and voters?"

Mike Marshall: "Yes, they have to be San Francisco registered voters."

NPT: "And have you started that petition drive yet?"

Mike Marshall: "No, we have not. There is a process. You have 180 days to do that, so what we did do was last week we created a new 501 (c) (4) organization, a political organization, called the Yosemite Restoration Campaign, and from that we will, and next month we are going to be doing some public opinion research, namely through a poll of San Francisco voters, we’ll take the information that we glean from that, structure the ballot initiative, submit it to the city attorney, and get it approved for signature gathering, and I think that has to be done all by the end of this year, and then we can begin collecting signatures from January 1, approximately, to June, so we’ll have 180 days in which to gather those signatures."

NPT: "Any feel for the political landscape, in terms of, if you got the signatures, would anybody challenge them and try to extend this through legal battles?"

Mike Marshall: "It’s a pretty cut-and-dried process. They could challenge the signatures. Our goal will be, if we need 47,000 signatures, to probably collect 60,000 signatures, so that even if there are signatures that are thrown out we will have enough.

"At that point the proposition would have to just put together a campaign to try to defeat the initiative. It’s not clear to me who that would be. The public, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, is a government agency, they can’t engage in political debate or organizing, and I’m not sure who wants to stand up and oppose the restoration of a valley in Yosemite National Park, other than Sen. Feinstein."

NPT: "Logistically, if the decision was made to drain the reservoir, and take down the dam, any idea what the time-frame would be, what would need to be done, how it would proceed, in terms of actually draining the reservoir and dismantling the dam and restoring the valley?"

Mike Marshall: "Well, technically you don’t have to dismantle the dam, you simply just blow a hole in the bottom of it, and there are those who argue that let’s not incur the cost of dam removal. Ultimately the Park Service will decide that question I hope they decide to take the dam down, but it will be their decision to do so.

"Once San Francisco votes to do this, we will have to start doing a massive amount of private fund-raising as well as work to get some congressional resources allocated to make it happen.

"And then the re-plumbing has to occur of the system, which would probably take five to six years, the restoration itself, once it begins, once the reservoir starts to be drained, we’ll probably drain it over an extended period of time, I would say five to seven years, so that the restorationists that are managing the process for the Park Service can sort of control the invasion of non-native plant species and do a good job of planting native plant species in there and really control that.

"Once you get down to the valley floor and drain it, the river will reclaim itself almost immediately, and within two to three years, in the springtime you’ll start to see meadows coming up. Within 10 to 12 year there will be saplings, and with 25 years young forests.

"You’ll be able to camp in it probably within 10 years, and there certainly will be guided tours during the restoration process, hopefully, so that Americans can witness first-hand seeing this valley come back to life.”